Xunzi on the Role of the Military in a Well-Ordered State

Journal of Military Ethics 18 (1):48-64 (2019)
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Abstract

Chapter 15 of the Xunzi stands as the most comprehensive account of the early Confucian analysis of warfare. Unlike a range of other early, non-Confucian discussions on warfare, particular strategies and tactics are taken to be of secondary importance. Thus, Xunzi refuses to discuss practical military strategy without framing it within a much broader ethical, social, and political context. On his account, a well-ordered, flourishing state necessarily rests upon a particular set of rituals and social norms in which people can cultivate themselves morally. Such a state has nothing to fear from any enemy, no matter how tactically sophisticated or militarily skilled. To many, such a view seems overly. However, given that Xunzi is anything but Pollyannaish in other parts of the text and is quite pessimistic about human nature in general, it behooves us to dig a bit more deeply into his ideas about military affairs and examine whether they can be understood in a more plausible light. This article provides a reading of Xunzi’s views on military affairs that is internally consistent and corresponds with Xunzi’s broader ethical and political views, while also showing why someone of Xunzi’s obvious intellectual acumen might hold such a view.

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Eirik Lang Harris
Colorado State University